Are Personas A Good Fit for Your Project? Part 1 of 2

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Note: This was originally a 2-part blog post that my colleague Meghan and I wrote for Elastic Path. It’s a follow up to Personas 101: What are they and why should I care? and provides a deeper look into when personas might be the right tool to use for your UX project.

User Experience Design is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

There’s a diverse set of methods and tools for learning more about your users and developing better product experiences. It’s important to remember that there’s a right time for choosing each one—a single method should never become the default “go-to” that you whip out of the toolbox regardless of the situation. This article will help you learn when personas are the right tool to use.

There’s been a lot of demand for personas in the past decade, and the reasons for developing them, along with the outputs and usage, often vary. Though it’s hard to go wrong when you’re learning more about your users, understanding when a persona is very impactful (and when it’s less so) will help you make the call whether personas will get you the most bang for your proverbial buck. Like anything that requires an investment, you will want to consider what you’re looking to get out of it before committing to personas. This is especially important because personas are not something you can casually set out to do.

Generally speaking, personas are most useful when they’re done prior to, or in parallel with, your product design. They are less useful when, say, you’re beta testing or just completed a lengthy redesign process – simply because you won’t be able to action as much from them.

How do you plan on using personas?

So how do you gauge if your business could benefit from an ethnographic research study and personas? We recommend creating personas when you’re considering making any significant changes to an existing product or when you’re kicking off a brand new product. But what does this really mean? If you nod ‘yes’ to any of the following questions, then personas may be just the thing:

Are you…

  • Exploring a new context of use? (ex: mobile)
  • Phasing out an old channel and replacing it with a new one? (ex: full-service sales to self-service sales)
  • Starting a brand new product and building it from scratch?
  • Grappling with way too many requirements or features, but have limited time and budget?
  • Looking for disruptive or innovative opportunities?
  • Transitioning to a new platform?
  • Lacking insight as to how your product plays into your user’s motivations and their daily life?
  • Wondering what will encourage users to adopt your product?
  • Struggling with too many internal, anecdotal definitions of who your users are and what they want?

How are personas typically used?

Personas are an excellent way to gain deeper insight into your users: who they are, their workflows and end goals, what motivates them, and their surrounding environment. However, personas are strategic rather than prescriptive. They help you understand where your users are coming from and empathize with their needs—and how your product fits into their lives and workflow. They often tell you where your users are frustrated, where their loyalties lie, what is critical information, what they love and hate about technology and where they need efficiencies. This can influence how you mold and shape your product and its workflows.

However, it’s important to understand that personas do not directly translate into detailed designs, wireframes, prototypes or information architecture. They only provide the background information on your users that will assist your development team in making decisions and creating those tactical designs. Often they are reviewed before requirements gathering to help with prioritization, and then used again as a resource to “bounce ideas off of” when designs are being developed.

What is my timeline?

Gauging where you are with your project will also help you assess if personas make sense. Developing well-researched and sound personas involves ethnographic research and that takes time (we’re talking weeks, not a couple of hours or days). Some questions to consider:

  • What do I plan on doing with the personas once they’re complete? Will they tie to specific product features or workflows?
  • Will personas help me change or impact any of the designs, or are the designs already locked down?
  • Do I know what specific types of customers or segments I want to focus on?
  • Will my organization or team buy into and actually use the personas?

If the timing of personas is such that it will not coincide or influence your design work, then they will only serve to satisfy curiosity – probably not what you’re looking for. Likewise, if there is not a direct correlation to a specific problem you are trying to solve, then they could turn out to be much too high-level for you to apply to a discrete, concrete problem. And if user-centered design is not accepted throughout your organization, then personas may not be the best starting point unless you also plan to follow through with rolling out iterative design and usability testing.

However, if you can identify when you will use them and have plans to leverage them for your design, then personas will be an extremely useful tool.

Next up — in Part 2, we will talk more about the activities that should take place before kicking off your personas project.

Curious what a persona looks like? See our recently published Gen Y personas as an example.

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